Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Wednesday, October 23, 2013: Maximum Shelf: Someone Else's Love Story

Morrow: Someone Else's Love Story by Joshilyn Jackson

Someone Else's Love Story

by Joshilyn Jackson

Since her debut novel, gods in Alabama, Joshilyn Jackson (A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty) has made a name for herself with a signature blend of offbeat humor, family-driven plots, strong heroines, and a soupçon of Southern grace. In her newest novel, Jackson is in top form with a quirky but deeply felt fusion of two storylines that explore the ways our lives are shaped by different types of love.

Twenty-one-year-old Shandi Pierce always thought "Love stories started with a kiss or a meet-cute, not with someone getting shot in a gas station minimart." When she and her adorable, brilliant three-year-old son, Natty, are caught in a convenience store robbery and saved by a man she swears is the spitting image of "the great god Thor," Shandi quickly changes her tune. A firm believer in miracles, Shandi is convinced she and the "Norse godling" have crossed paths because they are destined to be together. Just like that, Shandi is in love.

However, while William Ashe may look like Thor, he's all too human. Although he's a magnificent physical specimen and a brilliant geneticist, William also has qualities associated with the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, such as trouble relating to emotional matters and a strong tendency to frame the world in logic and numbers. Currently, he's trying to cope with the loss of his wife and two-year-old daughter in an auto accident, a crisis that would faze even the most emotionally aware of people. William sees the robbery as an opportunity to seize his "destiny, this shorthand word that means nothing beyond the strength of his own will." Where Shandi sees the hand of fate, William sees the chance to escape his pain.

Once outside the microcosm of the robbery, Shandi and William each slowly realize they must come to grips with their personal demons. For Shandi, that means admitting to herself that although she cannot remember Natty's conception, it wasn't an immaculate miracle as she's convinced herself to believe, but rape. If she wants to own her past, Shandi knows she has to find out the truth behind Natty's paternity, and William's skills as a geneticist are just what the doctor ordered. At the same time, she's navigating her new feelings for William and living alone for the first time, having just moved into her own condo after getting tired of living with her well-meaning but social life–destroying mother.

After failing at suicide by robber, William finds himself once again grappling with grief for his wife, Bridget, the love of his life since high school. In carefully parceled flashbacks, Jackson slowly reveals their halting but passionate love story, its forward momentum helped along by their sassy mutual friend Paula but constantly impeded by Bridget's deep and sustaining Catholic faith colliding with William's equally strong conviction that God doesn't exist. That they eventually overcome their differences is made almost painfully bittersweet by the reader's foreknowledge of where their love story will eventually lead William and by the futility of Shandi's feelings for him. How can she hope to measure up to the epic love story William already lived?

Shandi and William make perfect foils for each other, her naïveté and openness a candy-colored contrast to his gray cynicism. Where he is a solid wall of logic and analytics--"In families, he realized, children are added to, not superseded.... Wives are structured differently"--she is a straightforward bolt of action: "He was sad and tragic, and helping a girl like me hunt justice might be exactly what he needed." However, the narrative is much larger than just William and Shandi. Jackson looks at a variety of relationships: parents and children, lifelong friendships, budding love, relationships that failed, relationships in flux. The robbery in the convenience store causes Shandi and Natty to forge a bond with William, but that bond threatens Shandi's closeness with her best friend Walcott, who was literally and figuratively shut out of the experience. Shandi's concept of romantic love is hindered not only by the rape she's refused to let herself admit happened, but also by the failure of her parents' marriage and their subsequent unhappiness. The shape of their past molds her difficulty risking her heart in a relationship.

Despite some of the heavier thematic elements, in Jackson's world, second chances and true love tend to prevail, and her offbeat sense of humor can find the lighter side of any situation, whether it's a confrontation with a snooty stepmother or moving away from home for the first time. Readers who prefer the fluffier side of chick lit will find plenty of laughs to satisfy their tastes here, and readers with a predilection for thought-provoking substance will likewise leave the story with a feeling of satisfaction. With a standout voice and a talent for creating fresh, vibrant characters, Jackson continues to be a powerhouse of bold, heartwarming, book club–worthy fare. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Morrow, $26.99, hardcover, 9780062105653, November 19, 2013

Morrow: Someone Else's Love Story by Joshilyn Jackson

Joshilyn Jackson: Her Cast of Characters

photo: E.V. Jackson

Joshilyn (pronounced Jocelyn) Jackson lives in Decatur, Ga. She is the author of five previous novels. Her books have been translated into a dozen languages, won SIBA's novel of the year, twice been a #1 Book Sense Pick, twice won Georgia Author of the Year, and twice been shortlisted for the Townsend prize. She recently took time out of her morning to talk with us about love, creativity, and Someone Else's Love Story. Visit her website here.

How did Someone Else's Love Story come together?

I'd been wanting to write about William for about 10 years, but he is so sad! I don't tend to write slow-paced, elegiac, mopey kinds of books. I like there to be some kissin' and some shootin'. I started writing this book about Shandi, and I realized I was writing about the themes I wanted to use with William. When I thought about Shandi and William together, it's like he's this gray rock and she's this little hammer. I thought she could smash him open and he'd be all diamonds up in there.

I thought, "Well, they need to be together," and that's destiny. It had to be fate, it had to be this wildly random thing. I wanted to write a book about miracles, where all these huge, overblown fake miracles happen, and then quietly there would be a real miracle that you might not even notice happening but that is absolutely the working of God in the world.

What attracted you to the topic of autism and Asperger's?

Before I wrote gods in Alabama, I wrote a novel called Forty Dead Horses--isn't that a marketable title? Don't you wanna read that right now?--and it was about a character with Asperger's. I had a horse then, and the barn where my horse lived hosted a therapeutic riding program. As someone who was writing about it years ago, it's kind of irritating to me that it's become trendy now, but as a person who has relatives on the spectrum, I love it.

I feel like it's important for William to have a love story, because people with Asperger's have a hard time reading social cues, but the truth is, they're very successful people in our world, especially in technology. They're marrying and having more kids and becoming more and more successful, so evolution tells us we're going to see more and more of this.

This is a conventionally sweet love story told from an unconventional starting point.

William's story begins a year after he loses everything. I'm starting another novel right now and the narrator is Paula, William's best friend, in a place where she's happy with everything. I wasn't as interested in beginning with a William that had everything. William is a character who is very comfortable living in the now. He's a very present person. I'm not. I live in the future and the past. My life is a maelstrom of worry and regret, which is ridiculous. I'm like, I need to go to yoga class more often! William doesn't worry much and he doesn't reflect. He learns, decides, moves forward. You can't begin with him in a place where the main concern would be worry about losing something or regret for past actions. It has to be from a place where the forward motion is itself the tension, which is, "I have found myself in a situation that will allow me with no repercussions to walk into my own death," and that is where the story had to begin, with a person who is walking into their own death in a willful, chosen way and stumbles into a whole new beautiful life. That's the story I wanted to tell.

In Someone Else's Love Story, we meet two male/female best friend pairs. Do you think men and women can be just friends, or do you subscribe to the When Harry Met Sally school of thought?

I am a person who met a guy that I never would have dated because he was super nice to me, and he became my best friend. We were best friends for seven years, at which point it suddenly occurred to me that I was desperately in love with him, and I married him and had a whole bunch of his babies, and he's still my favorite.

I think there has to be something that removes sex from a male/female friendship. William and Paula have had sex, and Shandi and Walcott have had sex, so my way of moving sex out of the way was to go ahead and let them have had it--"We did that. That box has been checked."

The robbery scene is so tense and scary. How did you develop it?

I just wrote it [laughs]. The way I write action scenes is, I block out the scene and I play the scene myself as each character. What makes an action scene work is being able to see it, smell it. If I can't picture it, I'll get my friends or my children and set up the scene and move through it physically. You have to be able to see it for it to be effective. I think my theater background really helps me write action scenes, because when I write an action scene, it is correct. I know that nobody ever pauses and goes, "Wait, how did he get over there?"

What's your creative process like?

It's stupid. My creative process is really stupid. It's exhausting, and if I could do it any other way, I would. Usually I think about the character, and I never write anything down, I never take notes. If it's important, they'll come back, and I'll begin to realize that they belong with other ones and they'll start to form a cast, and an individual cast will get really loud. The longest I've ever thought about a character before writing was 19 years, and the shortest I've ever thought about a character before writing was five years. Each book has characters in it that are brand new, but there are also characters in there that I've been wanting to write about. So, the book I'm thinking about now, I may die before I get to write it down, but I have characters I've been thinking about for a long time, and it's their turn right now.

Tell us more about your next project.

I've never really written a sequel, although gods in Alabama and Saints are linked books, but when I was writing Someone Else's Love Story, I was thinking it was a trilogy. I don't know that I'll get to write them all. I know I'm writing the Paula book. I may be done then. I may get everything I need to say said, but I feel like this might be a trilogy that's moving toward one thing. I'm very interested in the last book, which would be about the custody battle for Natty with Paula as the lawyer. All of that is set up in Someone Else's Love Story, but I knew I wouldn't have time to tell that story yet. Plus, this is William's book. --Jaclyn Fulwood

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